Stool Pigeon

Sure, he's got an unfortunate knack for running afoul of the law. But that's nothing compared to his talent for getting himself set free.

Johnny Edwards was in trouble again. Here he was in the Hennepin County jail; his car was a wreck, his money was gone, and three people were saying he'd robbed them at gunpoint. For someone less experienced in the ways of the criminal-justice system it could have been a downright scary scenario.

But Edwards knew just what to do. From jail last August 25, he called the Hennepin County attorney's office--collect--and asked for investigator Bob Nelson. The two had talked a lot, sometimes daily, during the previous two years, as Edwards had supplied Nelson with confidential information about a series of high-profile gang cases.

Edwards told Nelson he'd had nothing to do with this robbery--but that, as luck would have it, he knew who'd done it. Better yet, he promised, "I even know about a murder that he did, the same dude, the night before that."

To judge from the transcript of the conversation, Nelson didn't entirely buy Edwards's claim. But he was interested enough to send Minneapolis Police Sgt. Jim DeConcini, an officer Edwards knew and trusted, to the jail.

By this time, police had already gathered a pretty consistent picture of the robbery and subsequent events. According to police reports in court files, three witnesses had told them that Edwards and a friend had come to a North Minneapolis apartment on August 24--to sell a gun, one of them said--and robbed everyone present. As Edwards fled with the witnesses' cash, they told police, his accomplice got nervous and shot two of them. Though none of the witnesses had ever seen the accomplice before, two of them said they had known Edwards for years. They'd have been hard-pressed to mistake him for someone else; a 1993 shooting had cost him his right leg.

Hours later police spotted the brown station wagon--Edwards's '79 Impala--in which the witnesses reported the alleged assailants had fled. A high-speed chase ensued, and the car plowed into a garage. Two unidentified men jumped out of the front seats and ran in opposite directions. Edwards and another passenger in the back seat, a 13-year-old boy, were arrested.

Edwards's account, by contrast, went like this: He and the 13-year-old were hanging out outside the house where the robbery took place when they heard a gunshot. Within moments they saw an acquaintance named Dameion Robinson running away. A few hours later, Edwards told DeConcini, he and his friend ran into Robinson and another man, and they all got into Edwards's car.

As they were driving around, Edwards claimed, Robinson slid into the back seat next to him. He talked about how Edwards had informed on a lot of people, who didn't like him as a result; and how nevertheless, Robinson would tell Edwards about committing a robbery earlier that night, and a murder the night before.

"He said--these are his exact words--'I ain't even gonna try to do shit to you,'" Edwards said. "'I know you seen what happened, and I know [police] gonna come to you about it. I ain't even gonna try to touch you, man. But don't say nothing about what happened, man, don't tell them what happened, don't say my name at all.'"

At that exact moment, Edwards went on, an MPD squad car began chasing them. When Edwards's station wagon crashed into a garage, Robinson leapt out of the back seat and fled. As for the nearly $250 found in Edwards's sock and his pocket--almost the amount the victims claimed had been taken from them--he explained that he always carried extra cash.

Despite the discrepancies between Edwards's story and the accounts of the eyewitnesses, the Hennepin County attorney's office took his version of events seriously. Acting on a tip from another informant, they'd already arrested Robinson on suspicion he committed the murder. Now they compared the ammunition used in the murder to the slugs left at the robbery scene. They appeared to match. Police went to re-interview the robbery witnesses, who'd earlier said they had no idea who the shooter was; when shown Robinson's picture, they all identified him.

Robinson is scheduled to stand trial March 6 for two counts of attempted murder, two counts of aggravated robbery, and one count of first-degree murder.

Edwards, for his part, wasn't charged with anything--just as he wasn't the previous time he'd been arrested for robbery, or the time the cops picked him up with loaded, unlicensed guns. In fact, Edwards's record shows that he has a remarkable way of showing up in legally compromising situations, and walking away from them without so much as a misdemeanor charge. It's almost as if, in the words of one attorney who has faced Edwards in the courtroom, he has a "walk-on-water pass." (City Pages was unable to interview Edwards for this story; the phone number he provided to police after he was arrested has been disconnected, and the prosecutors and cops who talked to him claim they can't even officially acknowledge that he exists.)

Confidential informants have always been a part of police work. But it wasn't until recently that authorities--faced with increased pressure to do something about violent crime, gangs, and drug-dealing--made them a central part of the criminal-justice system. For years now, federal prosecutors have held out snitching as the only way for criminal defendants to avoid tough mandatory sentences. In Minnesota, the push for doing the same has been led by Hennepin County Attorney and DFL gubernatorial candidate Mike Freeman.

In the years since he first announced his bid for the governor's office, Freeman has frequently appeared at press conferences touting his tough-on-crime policies, specifically his accomplishments cracking down on gangs. What he hasn't said is that many of those accomplishments came by way of rolling out a taxpayer-financed red carpet for the likes of Johnny Edwards.

By the time Edwards began his career as an informant three years ago, he'd already been arrested or noted as a suspect in at least 30 crimes, not including arrests on numerous driving-related offenses. At least five of the incidents involved weapons; seven were domestic-violence cases.

In December 1990, a friend of Edwards's told police that after they argued "over a girl," Edwards--whom he identified as "a runaway" from the juvenile detention center at Red Wing--shot at him. The friend declined to press charges. A month later, Edwards was one of three people arrested in Minneapolis on suspicion of possessing crack and guns.

In October 1991, a former girlfriend told police Edwards waved a gun at her and threatened to "smoke your ass." In January '92, Edwards and another man were arrested for possession of crack and two unlicensed handguns during a traffic stop. Edwards, police reported, accused them of planting the drugs. A month later, his girlfriend told police he hit her in the head with a glass.

On April 12, 1993, police stopped a car with expired tags and arrested all the occupants, including Edwards, after finding five loaded, unlicensed handguns. Two weeks later, Edwards lost a leg in what police described as a gang-related shooting. Police noted that a friend of Edwards's told them the attack came after Edwards was involved in a drive-by shooting.

Edwards's new disability didn't seem to stem the flow of complaints against him. In December 1993, his wife told police he hit her in the face with a crutch. The following month, Edwards's girlfriend told police he had beaten her and his year-old son. A month after that, the girlfriend told police that Edwards assaulted her again, this time using a pair of vise grips.

Thus far, the record does not show Edwards ever being charged with a serious crime. But in October 1995, a woman told police he and an unidentified juvenile robbed her at gunpoint in a parking lot. About a month later, acting on a tip from an informant, Brooklyn Park police conducted a drug raid on Edwards's apartment. He was jailed and charged with the earlier holdup and with possession of marijuana.

To get out of jail this time, Edwards would have to take extraordinary steps. Unable to make bail, he called the Minneapolis Police Department and said he had information about some high-profile murder and attempted-murder cases. He offered to rat on six men police earlier that year had described as the ringleaders of the Rolling 30s Bloods ("Get Out of Jail Free," 1/22/97 City Pages).

The cases were important; nailing the Bloods had become a top priority for cops, prosecutors, and city officials stung by the "Murderapolis" tag the New York Times had bestowed on the city that June. The gang, they claimed, was Minneapolis's most violent, and its members accounted for a good part of the previous 18 months' record homicide rate.

By the time Edwards came forward, county attorneys had already tried the Bloods' reputed leader, Reggie Ferguson, on attempted-murder charges, but the case had ended in a hung jury. Cases against two other reputed Bloods had been dropped. Police had conducted a lengthy surveillance campaign on the Ferguson home, but failed to observe any criminal activity.

Shortly after Edwards's jailhouse call, all six of the alleged Bloods leaders were arrested. County Attorney Mike Freeman and Minneapolis Police Chief Robert Olson called a joint press conference to herald the end of the gang's reign. They didn't name the citizen who'd helped bring about the arrests, but the cops portrayed him as a hero: "I think everyone out there would like to see these kind of people get caught and put in jail," one of the investigating officers was quoted as saying. "But there are very few people willing to stick their necks out."

Hennepin County has long offered perks for witnesses--small measures, says Deputy County Attorney Pat Diamond, taken to help the timid open up. "People come to us before trial and say, 'I don't feel safe because of what I know and the people around me,'" he explains. "We get involved in very minimalist ways. Often we move people across town. So maybe we'll pay the cost of the truck and the first month's deposit." Diamond says the county typically spends less than $20,000 a year helping witnesses, though in cases of "extraordinary demand" it can dip into money confiscated during arrests.

"Extraordinary demand" clearly applied with Edwards, who had become a VIP of sorts. "The cases were a big deal," acknowledges Diamond. "We're talking about murder."

Prosecutors said it wasn't safe for Edwards to stay in his apartment, because gang members might come after him there, so they paid rent for relatives who put him up. In 1996, the North Side duplex where Edwards had lived burned down under what police called suspicious circumstances; an arson investigation never yielded conclusive results. After that, the county put Edwards up in downtown Minneapolis's Regency Plaza Hotel, where he stayed while testifying in the three most notorious Bloods cases.

During those three months--October, November, and December 1996--Edwards's tab at the Regency grew to more than $4,600, much of it for stops at the restaurant, coffee shop, and the hotel's Hub Cap Pub. He was also given a county-paid account with Blue and White taxi service; records submitted in court by the county attorney's office show he used the cabs to travel from his $79-a-night room to his North Side apartment sometimes several times a day.

Later, when Edwards's car was impounded, Hennepin County paid to get it out and put new plates and tags on it. And after he left the hotel, the county again paid rent to relatives.

By early last year, the county had spent a total of $9,000 on Edwards, while the MPD had given him $1,700 in cash (for what, police records don't say). Court records don't specify how much his protection cost during the following four months, when he waited to testify in several more trials.

While county officials went out of their way to protect him, Edwards didn't act like a man who needed to stay out of sight; rather, he seemed emboldened. In November 1996, Minneapolis police found him and three other men parked near an intersection in the Central neighborhood, aiming a gun equipped with a laser sight. Police turned up three more guns and some ammunition inside the car. When Edwards was taken into custody, police reports show, he protested that the cops were going to have to let him go. He was the star witness, he said, in some big trials underway downtown.

Because Hennepin County would have had a conflict of interest investigating its own snitch, prosecutors sent the gun case to Ramsey County. The prosecutors across the river declined to press charges, reasoning that even though ammunition was found in the pockets of each of the men picked up, there were no prints on the gun.

The Minneapolis police officer who'd arrested the men had another explanation: "We didn't want to charge him," Officer Jeff Werner told City Pages at the time, "because it would have made him look like a bad witness."

At first, the effort the county put into securing Edwards's testimony seemed to pay off. The first three men Edwards testified against were quickly convicted: Ferguson was tried again in the attempted-murder case that earlier ended in a hung jury, and this time he went to prison. His brother Alonzo and another alleged Blood, Shannon Solomon, were found guilty of murder in separate cases. (Alonzo Ferguson's appeal is currently before the state Supreme Court.)

It's standard policy for attorneys to exchange witness lists long before trial, allowing careful scrutiny of witnesses' backgrounds. But because prosecutors argued that Edwards was in danger of gang retaliation, his identity stayed secret until the eve of trial in each of the first three Bloods cases. When he took the stand, defense attorneys were ill-prepared to challenge his credibility.

But midway through the Bloods trials, defense attorneys got a break. Charges against the fourth man Edwards had fingered, George Dixon, were dropped in early 1997 when, courthouse sources say, police found out that the killer wasn't Dixon, as Edwards had claimed. (Prosecutors won't comment on the case.) And when the fifth man, Obuatawan Holt, went on trial, the judge ruled that by now everyone involved knew who the prosecution's mystery witness was, so the "veil of secrecy" was no longer needed.

Prosecutors were ordered to open their files on Edwards, and Holt's attorney soon found witnesses to rebut everything he said. The jury returned a not-guilty verdict for Holt; afterward one of them reportedly said they wouldn't have believed Edwards "if he'd stood in front of us and said he had one leg."

Edwards's most spectacular failure came in the last of the Bloods cases, that of Milton Lewis. Edwards had told police that he'd heard Milton Lewis confess to a drug-related murder. But on the eve of Lewis's trial another man confessed to the crime ("State's Evidence," 4/23/97).

Edwards's own case, meanwhile--the armed robbery that launched his career as an informant--never went to trial. Prosecutors postponed the matter for two years, and last fall dismissed the charges saying they could no longer find his alleged victim.

It doesn't seem fair, Diamond concedes, but it's the way of the world. "In terms of the way the [Bloods] were prosecuted, I can understand why someone wouldn't be happy with what Johnny Edwards got," he says. "But on the other side of that, I think the public outcome justified that."

One attorney who has gone up against Edwards in the past disagrees. "They've watched way too many Elliot Ness movies," says Minneapolis attorney Joe Margulies, "and they've become convinced that the only way to get inside a gang is to get someone [to turn informant]. What makes it worse with Edwards is that it's so obvious he's using them."

"Swans don't swim in sewers" is the phrase cops and prosecutors like to use when asked about snitches. Informants, they say, are an ugly necessity; often they're also the only way to crack gang-related cases.

"When you're talking about gang crimes, one of the things you have to be specialized in is the giving of deals," says Diamond. "The reality is that the person who's an accomplice generally isn't going to walk in and say, 'I think I'll tell you what's going on.' That's not the way things work." Instead, he says, prosecutors offer deals to some criminals in return for information on others. "You find yourself dealing with some people you'd rather not deal with," he acknowledges.

The problem, according to critics, is that the system creates powerful incentives for informants to manufacture or embellish testimony. In the federal courts, where informants are most frequently used, defendants often face long mandatory minimum sentences if they don't turn state's evidence; as a result, says Minneapolis attorney Demetrius Clemons, fully half the cases he tries now involve informants. "You can get stopped with a one-twentieth-of-a-gram rock in your pocket and it's a felony. Fifty grams or more is a minimum of 10 years, and with priors it can get enhanced to 20 to life. You'd tell on your mama."

Recently, attorneys say, county prosecutors have also turned increasingly to snitches. Mary Moriarty, Dameion Robinson's public defender, says in virtually every nonproperty case she's defended recently where more than one person was charged, the county attorney's office has sought to turn at least one defendant into an informant. She says cases often come down to who decides to talk first: "The person who's trying to make a deal has every reason to maximize the other person's role and to minimize their own because they're trying to minimize their own potential sentence. I mean, who wouldn't?"

One reason for the push to create snitches is the political climate, says Peter Erlinder, a professor of constitutional criminal law at William Mitchell College. Prosecutors, he says, are under pressure to rack up convictions fast, especially in gang-related cases. "And the more it happens, the more it appears necessary," he says. "The difficulty is that there's no limits and no structure."

One limitation on the use of informants was recently lifted by the Minnesota Supreme Court. Last year, justices ruled that when witnesses in gang cases refuse to testify, prosecutors may introduce into evidence statements the witnesses made to investigators outside the courtroom. That, civil libertarians complain, undermines defendants' constitutional right to cross-examine their accusers. And while such loopholes may appear justifiable in exceptional cases, Erlinder argues, "there's no guarantee that they will stay confined to gangs. So the question is, do we want to have a system of keeping peace based on the use of informants and snitches? If the answer is yes, just look to the old Soviet Union."

Many politicians, however, don't share those fears. When Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman talks about cracking down on gang-related crime, he doesn't even use the word "informant." Instead, he extols the importance of making it safer for victims and witnesses to testify. In 1994--the year he first ran for governor--Freeman went to the state Legislature asking for a $1 million witness-protection fund, and for rules helping prosecutors to move witnesses receiving welfare from one county to another. "We didn't need these programs 10 years ago," Freeman told reporters at the time, "but we need them now, when crime is becoming more violent."

The Legislature eventually did create a Witness and Victim Protection Fund, though it resolved to spend far less than Freeman had hoped. Lawmakers last year approved $100,000 for the statewide fund, plus an additional $50,000 a year for gang-related cases in 1997 and 1998. A Freeman-supported bill to appropriate additional money is making its way through this year's legislative session.

Freeman is also pushing lawmakers to copy the federal system's special tools for gang prosecutions. Some of the bills legislators have introduced at his request in recent weeks would create stiffer mandatory penalties for gang-related crimes, loosen the rules governing what crimes can be judged gang-related, create a mandatory minimum sentence for anyone found guilty of using a weapon to threaten witnesses, and make it easier to prosecute witnesses for protecting gang members.

"You can tell that it's an election year and county attorneys are running for governor," quips Minneapolis DFL Rep. Len Biernat, who is sponsoring one of the bills.

Freeman's efforts have garnered attention on the national level, landing him on a U.S. Department of Justice panel studying gang-related prosecutions. Hennepin County's witness-protection efforts were outlined in a recent federal "how-to" manual for securing better witness cooperation in gang cases. While the Justice Department report makes no note of any civil-liberties concerns raised by the increased use of informants, it does contain a passage cautioning that "today's witness is often tomorrow's defendant." It tells prosecutors to structure witness-protection programs so as to avoid liability for anything that happens to protected witnesses, and for any crimes they may commit while receiving government support. In some places, the report notes, prosecutors have dealt with witnesses trashing their government-paid hotel rooms and using them for prostitution.

The report does not address what county attorneys should do with a witness who is implicated in violent crimes while under protection. But according to Freeman's deputy, Diamond, the answer is obvious: Informants who run afoul of the law are dealt with just like any other criminal suspect. "They're still responsible for their behavior," he asserts. "The understanding is that they'll be prosecuted just like anyone else."

After Edwards's arrest last August, Hennepin County prosecutors--again facing a conflict of interest--sent his case to their Ramsey County counterparts. And again, the prosecutors there decided that charges against Edwards wouldn't stand up in court. The shooting victims, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Elizabeth Beltaos wrote in a letter explaining the decision, all identified Edwards as the shooter's accomplice. But they told conflicting stories about why they were at the scene in the first place. Everyone involved, she noted, had a criminal record and thus didn't make for sterling witnesses.

Finally, Beltaos wrote, the MPD had failed to find either the gun used by the shooter or the .380 allegedly brandished by Edwards. The department didn't execute a search warrant on Edwards as she had requested, she added; police claimed that they had no good address for him.

Diamond says his office was bound by Ramsey County's decision. "When you shift a case, you don't make any decisions about it. If you don't like the result of their decision, you don't change it," he explains. "We take conflict cases very seriously. It's not like there's a wink and a nod."

Indeed, Diamond's colleagues must have found their Ramsey County counterparts' line of reasoning sorely flawed. Using the same witnesses Ramsey County said were not good enough to charge Edwards, they indicted Dameion Robinson--the man Edwards had named as the shooter--for the armed robbery. And since ballistics tests corroborated Edwards's claim that the .25-caliber handgun used in the robbery also fired a lethal shot at a man the night before, Robinson was indicted for first-degree murder as well.

From the record so far, evidence in that murder case is at least as messy as it is in the robbery. These are the basics: On the morning of August 24, Derangle "Dino" Riley was found by a friend, keeled over in the front seat of his red Buick Skylark. The right-hand pocket of his shorts was turned out, but a diamond-encrusted ring still circled his right ring finger. Riley had been killed by a single shot to the head. The cops found a spent .25-caliber casing behind Riley on the floor of the back seat.

Witnesses would later tell police that Riley had last been seen alive when he left a nearby party with Dameion Robinson. The two were arguing, they claimed, over the price of some crack. Earlier that evening, other witnesses later told police, Robinson had been displaying a pink-pearl-handled .25, which he'd fired in the front yard. Another witness told police he happened across Robinson elsewhere in the neighborhood that night, and that Robinson offered him crack in exchange for a ride home.

Robinson has denied any involvement in the shooting, according to his attorney. At the time Riley was shot, he told police, he had given up trying to buy drugs from him and walked down the street to another house where he managed to score. He also denies Edwards's claims that he had any involvement in the armed robbery, or that he drove around in Edwards's car that night.

The court files about the case contain other problematic details. At least two of the shell casings recovered in the shootings were turned in by witnesses who say they found them after the police had finished examining the crime scenes. The gun that police say was used in both shootings has never been found.

Police questioned most of the witnesses several times and many of their statements changed from one interview to another. In the case of the armed robbery, all of the witnesses told conflicting stories; in the murder case, several witnesses said that they were under the influence of alcohol, marijuana, or crack. One told police he had been awake and partying for more than 48 hours. The person who found Riley's body told police two conflicting stories about how he happened across it.

Virtually everyone scheduled to testify against Robinson in both cases has a rap sheet; one witness has a 17-year-old murder conviction. Another has in the past owned a pink-pearl-handled .25--the relatively rare kind of weapon allegedly used in both shootings.

There is, however, one point on which the record seems clear: witnesses' recollection that Edwards was involved in the robbery and left with the shooter. Yet Edwards will not be charged with anything. In fact, even though it was his jailhouse call that first linked Robinson to the robbery, chances are he won't even testify in the case.

Assistant County Attorney Mike Furnstahl confirms that he won't call Edwards to the stand when Robinson goes to court. He won't say why, explaining that he can't discuss the particulars of his cases. But Robinson's attorney says the decision is "curious."

"Johnny Edwards says my client confessed to him," Moriarty notes. "If prosecutors say they're not going to call that witness, that says a lot about that witness's credibility. Why would you lose the opportunity to have that confession?" Moriarty says she's convinced prosecutors are anxious to keep Edwards out of the courtroom because by now he's poison to their cases--that when his background is examined, juries won't believe a word he says. (Last summer, the county attorney's office briefly considered using Edwards in a gang prosecution, but dropped the charges when it became clear he was their main witness.)

Some suspect it's that same reasoning that keeps Edwards from being charged with any crimes. The county, argues attorney Joe Margulies, has created a monster it can no longer control. "If you say Johnny Edwards is dirty, you're saying that every case prosecuted using him, every case they've staked their integrity on, that they're crap."

News intern Erik Farseth contributed research to this story.

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